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Notes from Peer Land about Solidarity

Elvira Black

I would like to unpack the challenges to solidarity in my life because of my career in peer support. I have an undergraduate degree, but I did not pursue graduate studies because I am a working class person who was urgently interested in learning to survive in the world outside of academia; I am also a creative person who, although capable of research and technical writing, values other forms of expression. I certainly appreciate the research of others when it contributes to making the world a better place and is written, disseminated, and applied in ways that are accessible and relevant to people outside academia.

Learning to survive in the “real” world turned out to be very challenging. It resulted in my entering the mental health system, and ultimately achieving a limited level of personal empowerment and ability to support my peers by sharing this empowerment through a career in peer support. I am well aware of the limits of my power to change the system in this role, yet I would like to respectfully insist that I am making a difference in every way that I am able.

I strive to provide the most peer-focused and peer-driven service I can possibly provide by remaining critical, advocating for change whenever possible; I also take leadership and educate other professionals in the field with a counter-narrative to prevailing views and approaches which are out of date, and frankly oppressive. I support other peer workers in adhering to peer-driven values and advocate for more respect for peer workers within the system.

I understand the value of graduate studies for me. It would involve doing research and consultation in the community with the goal of creating an acceptable alternative to what currently exists, building capacity, and then applying for funding, or a loan, to create that alternative. The other option is to become a manager in the system and make change that way, which would be a less radical thing to do, of course, and would still be facilitated by attending graduate school. In this case, the thesis and program would need to challenge the status quo.

A third way to go to graduate school would involve doing something very theoretical and long term where I research and think about how to solve the problems I perceive in the system in a much more philosophical way. To do any of these things, my career would be utilized to further develop leadership skills and save money for graduate school. The idea of this undertaking is absolutely terrifying since I only recently achieved the ability to support myself financially. The bourgeois institution of graduate school strikes fear into my heart, and I resent privileged implications that there is something morally defective about me for not applying to graduate school immediately, or that there is nothing productive I can accomplish while I am still working in peer support. However, I may end up feeling very discouraged…

It is true that inclusion and consultation are words that need to be actually backed up by genuine inclusion and consultation. Consumer-survivors are not listened to as often and as genuinely as the system would have us believe, despite using these words and employing peer workers. This much is obvious to me after working in peer support since 2013 and being a user of the system for longer than that. This does not mean that I am utterly powerless or co-opted by any means, nor that I am a sell-out, or should be counted amongst the people that many consumer-survivor, Mad, and anti-psychiatry activists oppose.

Being a critical peer worker means encountering cognitive dissonance and frustration regularly and having to use every wellness tool at my disposal to be able to continue and function, which does not leave much spare time for reading and education. However, I feel that I’m on a path that is leading somewhere worthwhile and I am proud of myself.

I plan to express myself creatively and continue to participate in building and strengthening Mad communities and activism, as well as working diligently on my own empowerment and emancipation, and that of others—with others’ consent, of course. The solidarity that I feel is lacking at times could be increased if everyone were a bit more self aware about the role that internalized oppression plays in the judgemental finger wagging and undermining that goes on.  We all have a role to play in improving things and encouraging and supporting each other’s contributions is a productive way to build capacity and solidarity. I appreciate and would like to acknowledge the mentorship I received from various people. Some are prominent Mad advocates, activists, and academics. Others have been teachers and supervisors in the system who are enlightened, and have supported the cause, and my development.

I have learned so much from the peers with whom I share mutual support and friendship in my social, artistic, and activist life, and also not least from the many peers I have had the privilege to get to know and support in my professional career. These learnings are of equal importance to what I have learned in an academic context. I am grateful to all of the sources of my knowledge and empowerment and will only continue to seek more, because it is a worthwhile project that does not relate simply to my own well-being (which is important), but hopefully, and intentionally, to that of other individuals and the collective of Mad people, and society at large. The last person I’d like to thank is an academic relative who introduced me to the word “pre-figurative” which not only describes my work, but also my activism and perfectly encapsulates what I am trying to say about things that promote solidarity.

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Since writing this piece, I have ceased formal employment as a peer support worker. No usage of wellness tools would have been sufficient to cope with the horrors I was forced to witness, and ultimately instructed to be party to, and the oppression to which I was subjected. However, I believe that creative work, intellectual work, and activism are productive contributions I am able to make. I may find work in some other position in the field that does not involve disclosure. I may do blue collar work.

My experiences will inform my future employment choices and I will not be doing any work that I do not agree with philosophically and that does not respect my humanity and the humanity of my clients. More importantly, I will not be using government disability support and my use of the mental health system has not had to be increased after being sickened by my working conditions. Undergoing this career transition has proven to be a very healthy and positive move. Now, what of solidarity? I am ready and able to support my compatriots who work in peer support. I honor their desire to provide service that respects autonomy and self-determination, and their desire to transform the system.

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